I wanna live! I wanna experience the universe! And I wanna eat pie!

I was volunteering a while back at the Bottom Shelf, our local Friends of the Library used bookstore, when a woman came in and bought two copies of The Celestine Prophecy. (This book is like cockroaches: if you live in southern California, you know they’re there, waiting to come into the open.) Anyway, this woman says, "It’s such a wonderful book. I buy copies whenever I find them and give them to my friends." With friends like that . . . .

I suppose it was bound to happen, that I would someday run across someone who actually thinks highly of the book. I read it once, back in 1997, under a sort of duress and after having been promised that it would change my life. In a way that's true. I think that's when I finally decided that I really didn't have to finish every single book I started.

I took nine pages of notes while reading the book. Note-taking is not something I habitually do when reading, but I was often irritated and sometimes infuriated by what I read and I wanted to remember where those passages were. I distilled the nine pages down to the following summary.

Basically, the book offended me in three different areas.

1) It is poorly written. No, wait, that is an understatement. It is atrociously written.

Here's a statistic for you by way of example: just to keep myself amused while reading, I counted the number of times Redfield used the word 'look' to introduce or break up blocks of dialogue: e.g. (and these are actual, real quotes), "Looking at him for a second, I nodded moronically", or "He looked pale and cross-eyed", or "She looked at me intensely and bleated, 'Look at the energy level in that flock of sheep!'" (And here I wonder if he used 'bleated' and 'sheep' together in the same sentence out of happy coincidence or if he thought he was making a joke.)

I didn't even count synonyms like 'gaze' or 'stare', which he used a lot, too, or the use of 'look' within dialogue (like the sheep example I just mentioned), and I came up with a total of 322 occurrences. Statistically, that's 1.3 ‘looks’ per page, but, being a statistic, that's nearly meaningless. What makes it interesting is that he uses 'look' three, four, and sometimes five times a page. And then he gets into those long, long dialogues, so four or five pages go by without someone looking like or at anything. Page 208 has the most occurrences (six), but 209 is my favorite because he uses 'look' or 'looking' four times in three sentences.

It seems that Redfield has a limited vocabulary eked out with a bit of New Age jargon. He uses the same words over and over to describe things and ideas that require more precision than he is able to give them. So there are meaningless phrases like "get connected with the energy", "get clear", and "guilt tripping". Or this gem of sagacity: "That insight is amazing." Oh, yes, I understand it perfectly now.

But my favorite phrase of his is "love is a background".
Now, I’ve been told that love is all we need, that it’s lovelier the second time around, that it’s a many-splendored thing, and even that it’s a battlefield, but not until I was informed that it’s a background did any of it make sense (less).

He also misuses words that are near what he wants but not what he wants: 'laid' instead of 'lay', 'hedonistic' instead of 'selfish', 'intensely' instead of 'intently'.

I wonder if Redfield ever went to Peru or ever spoke with someone who has limited English skills, because there is no sense of place or individuality of character in this book. I got as much or more of a sense of Machu Picchu from looking at a postcard of it as I did from his description. And the pie served at that boarding house in the remote Peruvian village? I don't think so. Pie is not a Latin American staple, and the more remote the village, the more remote one's chances of coming upon a pie. And his limited English speakers, after giving the requisite 'eh' (meaning, I suppose, 'er') to show lack of fluency in speech, proceed to come up with some pretty syntactically and vocabularically demanding paragraphs. My favorite is Pablo, who cannot think of the English word for 'interpret' (which, by the way, is ‘interpretar’ in Spanish); and yet, a few sentences later, he tells our hero: "Even people who are still unaware can stumble into answers and see coincidences in retrospect. . . . It heightens everyday experience. We must assume every event has significance and contains a message that somehow pertains to our questions." Interpret that, Pablo.

2) Redfield doesn't know what the heck he's talking about.

a) He says the Celestine ruins were originally built by 'the Mayans', who subsequently vanished without a trace in 600 BC. First of all, where does he get the idea that the Maya ever built ruins in Peru? And in my encyclopedia, it says their civilization existed from AD 300-800. And what do all those Guatemalans and Mexicans of Mayan descent, who still speak a Mayan dialect, have to say about not being considered traces?

b) His description of history is off-the-wall and culturally chauvinistic. He speaks of western medieval culture and its collapse to begin with, then starts talking about this restlessness and materialism as if the entire world were in the throes of it, thus ignoring the development and intellectual growth of all the eastern cultures, which were in some ways far ahead of the West.

And this bit about "we sent out the explorers", but they took too long to come back so we decided to preoccupy ourselves with a "new, secular purpose, one of settling into the world making ourselves more comfortable". . . I can just see us all, 500 years ago, standing impatiently around the hourglass and asking ourselves, "Where the heck is that Columbus? And Magellan, and Cabot, and all those other guys we sent out? They're taking way too long to get back, so let's raise our standard of living." Is he saying exploration is separate from scientific invention? All of those secular endeavors meant to make people more comfortable, aren't they explorations in their own right? And as for Columbus and his pals, it was partly as a result of their explorations that “we” got the means – gold, and ideas and food from other cultures (yay cacao!) – to move on with raising our standard of living.

c) His scientific ideas are a bit wild, too, like when he says "the first matter exploded into the universe" with "each successive generation of stars creating matter that had not existed before". I feel I'm on weaker ground here, because science is not something I've studied extensively, but I always thought matter could not be destroyed or created, only changed in form (like to energy or something). I thought there was no such thing as an ex nihilo creation.

Also, he says he's sitting on a ridge having a mystical experience and he sees a quarter moon setting, then he imagines it going on round to the other side of the earth where the inhabitants will see it as a full moon. That's just wrong. The moon looks the same to everyone on earth as it goes through its phases (taking into account that, in the southern hemisphere, it happens in the opposite direction from the northern hemisphere). It's a quarter moon in New Zealand, China, Africa, the US, and New Brunswick all at the same time.

d) Finally, there’s his reduction of the psychology of the human race to four types: the intimidators, the interrogators, the aloof types (can't remember his term for them), and the "poor me's", and his claim about our supposed need to gobble each other's energy. I find most humans to be much more complex than that. For instance, I know from watching cop shows that interrogators can be very intimidating. It’s like a person’s psychological makeup is a continuum that you move along as you experience life, or maybe it’s a sort of Venn diagram with lots of possible combinations. Or yeah, here we go: it’s a Venn diagram that moves along a continuum. (And, by the way, what the heck is a 2400-year-old Peruvian manuscript written in Aramaic doing using terms like 'poor me' and 'get clear' and 'find the silver lining'?)

3) His spiritual ideas, even if they made any sense – which they don’t – are as simplistic as his psychology. Just as a (bad) taste:

a) He says, "Any one adult can only focus on and give attention to one child at a time.”

He’s apparently never been the mother of toddlers. Anyway, to continue:

“If there are too many children for the number of adults, then the adults become overwhelmed and unable to give enough energy. . . . Adults often glamorize the idea of large families and children growing up together. . . . The Manuscript says humans will slowly understand that they should not bring children into the world unless there is at least one adult committed to focus full attention, all the time, on each child."

Well, I think I know one adult who should be committed, and his initials are James Redfield.

But seriously, this concept raises a lot of objections in my mind. For one thing, can you imagine someone really and truly focusing their full attention, all the time, on you? That’s called stalking. People need to be on their own once in a while so that they learn to be independent. Okay, if my parents had focused their full attention, all the time, on me, I probably wouldn’t have got that hanger stuck in my eye when I was five years old. But because they were smart enough to leave me occasionally to my own devices, I learned the valuable lesson that one should not try to hang wire clothes hangers in the tangles of one’s freshly shampooed hair when that hair is draped in front of one’s eyes. I have never, ever tried doing that a second time. For another thing, children are not always that interesting. I think that's one reason they have earlier bedtimes than adults. And when you do focus too much attention on them, they have a good chance of becoming very spoiled, incapable of doing their own laundry or even slicing tomatoes.

I'm not saying kids don’t need attention. Sometimes they do, especially when they are babies. But how are you going to decide which parent (or caretaker or whoever) is going to do the focusing? And for how long? Consider if you will the logistic nightmares associated with scheduling who will focus full-time on which child and when during a 24-hour period. Think of the conflicts that would arise between the parents (or caretakers, etc)! They’d spend so much time arguing over it, they wouldn’t be able to focus on the child at all.

b) He says, "Our gifts should go to the persons who have given us spiritual truth. When people come into our lives at just the right time to give us the answers we need, we should give them money."


Silly me. I always thought spiritual truth was free.

And with the depressing observation that I know there are people who have taken and who will take this silliness seriously (like the woman in the bookstore, and the person who read the library's copy before I did and left all those underlined passages and admiring annotations in the margins), I think I better stop now by summing up with Dorothy Parker's comment that "this is not a book to be tossed aside lightly; it should be thrown with great force".


jared & megan said...

Man. I love reading your critiques on books - not only are they insightful, they're also quite funny. I was trying hard not to disturb Jared's phone call with my snorts of laughter. Anywho. I'll never read that book. Even if I did, I probably wouldn't finish it. It is sad about people tho. In general. lol... I'll talk to you later.

Jared said...

What is this book actually about? What would make people like it so much? I've wondered. Obviously it's not that well written (I feel like I can tell that just from the quotations), but there has to be something attractive to somebody about it.

Jared said...

k, this is actually adrien. the above comment was actually mine. i just didn't log into my own name.

Janeite42 said...

It's supposed to be a book about how to live your life. It follows this guy's (fictional, I'm pretty sure) spiritual journey to Peru to discover some ancient (Mayan) manuscript (written in Aramaic) with the secret to happiness on it. There are actually sequels -- I've seen them at the Shelf, but haven't looked at them. I think what makes people like it so much is that it gives simple (i.e. simplistic) answers to complex questions.

Shannie said...

you never cease to make me laugh :)
this book sounds terrible :D

eric & adrien said...

so um, also, sorry i forgot to call you this last weekend. i'm so bad at remembering these things. luckily, i bought myself a planner, and i will write down that i need to call you this weekend (when my minutes are free)!

Baxter Bugs said...

Ah, you noticed my X.

Yes I am, to answer your question.

Only don't quiz me on it. My retention abilities rival Redfield's writing abilities.

I'm the only person you'll ever meet who can actually re-read Agatha Christie. (Except for the three classics: Orient Express, Roger Ackroyd and Ten Little Indians...for obvious reasons.)